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Parsnips Shine Brightest on their Own

Jun 04, 2010

A parsnip is like a pasty-faced, overweight carrot, ancient and unrefined. The difference is hardly one of pedigree: The carrot began as the skinny white root of the Queen Anne's lace plant, not much use until breeders brought it to its crunchy, candy-colored, tangerine-flake glory.

All they did to the parsnip was fatten it up. It's still the same earthy root fed to cows on the Isle of Guernsey, remarkably nutritious but long ago dethroned as Europe's major starchy root by the New World potato.

Nevertheless, nothing else does what the parsnip does: rest in the ground all winter with no need for root cellar storage. After a few fall frosts it develops a sweetness that no carrot has ever bested, and it sustains that all the way into mid-spring. You can dig it any time the ground is not frozen, but it is most treasured as the earliest fresh harvest of the year.

The flavor of a parsnip is not delicate. To my palate it is both too strong and too sweet to enhance the stewpot. But it shines as a separate dish, taking the same role as that of a sweet potato: a foil for fatty meats. When roasted or sauteed, its sugars caramelize richly and are well complemented by seasonings such as orange zest, tarragon, rosemary, cumin or nutmeg.

It pairs well with onions, shallots, leeks and garlic, or its old cousin the carrot. Parsnips and carrots pureed together with cream make a side dish that goes with anything. And a historic partnership underlies the old saying "Fine words butter no parsnips." Butter mellows them out.

Ordinarily, parsnips are seed-sown in early spring, in a spot they will occupy for a year or more. But if your mouth is at this moment watering, it is not too late to sow a row. You will need fresh seed, and a patch of what I call "carrot soil": deeply dug, stone-free, well lightened with organic matter and finely pulverized, especially in the top inch where the seeds will sprout. You will have to keep the surface consistently moist until they germinate. This will help prevent an impenetrable crust from forming, but if a clay crust is your garden's trademark, you might try the old trick of sowing a crust-breaking nurse crop of radishes alongside.

If last spring's foresight has already won you a parsnip crop, try this 17th-century recipe from Sir Kenelm Digbie for a simple parsnip pudding. Grate the parsnips and stew the result in milk, adding more milk from time to time "till it hath drunk in a good quantity of the Milk, and is well swelled with it, and will take in no more."

Eat the parsnips, Digbie urges, "without Sugar or Butter, for they will have a natural sweetness that is beyond Sugar, and will be Unctuous so as not to need Butter." He was right about the sugar, but a knob of butter would be beyond sublime.


Article copyright of Barbara Damrosch, author of "The Garden Primer." Originally published in The Washington Post and reprinted with permission. Photo credit: Roger Doiron


I have never tasted a parsnip, but I planted some this year, 3 came up so far. I am going to try growing new veggies every year, until I have everyone that will grow here in S.C. Every one says to plant carrots in loose,stone free,rich deep soil. But you are the first to name it for me. I planted my white potatoes like asparagus, in a 12 inch trench with 4 inches of loose soil, as the plant grows to 4 inches you cover the bottom 2 inches of the plant. This continues until the trench is full, dig the potatoes when the vines died down. I was thinking of planting carrots in the beds next year(plant rotation), because the soil is rich with compost & loose as well as deep. Good Carrot soil. Thanks again, Joel
Parsnips take an age to germinate. Always sow insitu, with fresh seed and sprinkle a few radish along the row. This will define the row and stop you hoeing them off by mistake.
As always a good tip from Glenn, Thanks. Everything I read on the Parsnip says it can take up to two weeks to germinate. It has been 30 days, I may not get anymore then the 3 that are 2"(5cm) high & green.
I agree entirely with casting the parsnip in a starring role in a sauteed or pureed dish, or as part of an ensemble in a vegetable medley or caramelized in a roasting pan with or without meat. But to suggest that parsnips are too strong or too sweet is both unfair and over-simplified. First, the parsnip is a work in progress from September until the following spring. In early fall it is bland and uninteresting but begins to develop its characteristic sweetness as the cold settles in. By late November (at least here in New Hampshire) its flavor is perfect for use in stew (there's really nothing subtle about stew beef) By January it is nearly confectionary and best put to the uses you describe, though still with a complex and even subtle flavor that is much more versatile and subtle than carrots or sweet potatoes. By spring thaw, we're just so grateful to have a freshly harvested vegetable that the intense sweetness at that stage is entirely welcome. I have grown parsnips for about 20 years, and while I am not an expert, I am certainly a devotee. I recently wrote about them -- and my unique method for growing them -- in my own blog: When we make beef stew in the fall, we often add fresh horseradish root, no more than a quarter of a cup, finely diced. When the horseradish is cooked, it loses all of its well-known aromatic quality, but it retains a deliciously earthy, nutty flavor that goes well with the sweetness of the parsnips. Thanks for the insightful postings.

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